Shatter Your Illusions of Love

‘”I am going to get fat and lazy in Hill House,” Theodora went on. Her insistence in Naming Hill House troubled Eleanor. It’s as though she were saying it deliberately, Eleanor thought, telling the house she knows its name, calling the house to tell it where we are; is it bravado? “Hill House, Hill House, House House,” Theodora said softly, and smiled across at Eleanor.’

In 1959 Shirley Jackson published ‘The Haunting of Hill House.’ Stephen King called the novel ‘As nearly a perfect haunted-house tale as I have ever read.’ This quotation sits on the cover of the Penguin Modern Classics paperback, is placed above the title (and Mrs Jackson’s name) so it’s obvious the publisher was happy with it, and why.

The first paragraph of the book was noteworthy for King.

Discussing the haunted house tale in ‘Danse Macabre’, he suggests the house requires an ‘historical context’ – a dark history – and that ‘Jackson establishes it immediately in the first paragraph of her novel, stating her tale’s argument in lovely, dreamlike prose.’ He then quotes the famous opening:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly; floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

He says of the opening that

Analysis of such a paragraph is a mean and shoddy trick, and should almost always be left to college and university professors, those lepidopterists of literature who, when they see a lovely butterfly, feel that they should immediately run into the field with a net, catch it, kill it with a drop of chloroform, and mount it on a white board and put it in a glass case, where it will still be beautiful…and just as dead as horseshit.

He then goes on to offer some analysis of the opening paragraph. (He promises not to kill it or mount it, only to stun it a little before letting it fly on. I’m not sure he’s right to worry as much. I’ll change his metaphor to an analogy: what type of person doesn’t want to know how the magic-trick was done? What type does?)

Stephen King says he has neither the skill nor the inclination to offer a full analysis of Jackson’s dreamy opening. I’ll believe him about the inclination bit. Stephen King is a magician. I’d bet he knows exactly what Jackson’s opening does – but doesn’t want to reveal another magician’s secret.

Some think knowing the trick ruins the mystery. That depends on whether you prefer knowledge or mysteries. I’m not a magician, I always want to know how the trick is done, and I think knowing increases the beauty of it.

What does King say about it specifically? What he says about it first of all is interesting in itself. He states that

It begins by suggesting that Hill House is a live organism; tells us that this live organism does not exist under conditions of absolute reality; that because (although here I should add that I may be making an induction Mrs Jackson did not intend) it does not dream, it is not sane.

Does the opening ‘suggest’ Hill House is a live organism? I suppose it does, but ‘suggest’ is right. All humans are live organisms, and the first sentence tells us that to remain sane, live organisms need to dream. By ‘dream’ Jackson could well mean ‘fantasise’ or even ‘hallucinate’ as both these describe ways the mind of a live organism, a human one at any rate, can escape reality and therefore maintain sanity.

However I am unconvinced the first sentence actually refers to Hill House. It seems like it does, given the sentence which follows, but one needs to try to explain Jackson’s words ‘not sane’ to make this idea work.

Could she be telling nothing but the plain truth when describing Hill House as ‘not sane’? A house is indeed ‘not sane’ because it is a house, an object, not a live organism. Though something is ‘not sane’ it does not follow at all it must therefore be ‘insane’ – just as if something did not ‘turn left’ does not mean it necessarily ‘turned right’.

I think Jackson added ‘not sane’ into her description of Hill House to link it in the minds of readers with the first sentence, and could do so because to describe the house this way is still to tell the truth about it. If readers take it to mean something else then good: that might be the point – but Jackson hasn’t lied to anyone.

Once this piece of clever misdirection is complete, Jackson can then tell the plain truth about the house in more detail, knowing the reader will not be reading it as the plain truth. (Remove ‘not sane’ – therebye uncoupling it from the first sentence. Does it sound quite so creepy?)

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly; floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

The ending sounds spooky, but it would be true of anyone who walked around a house by themselves. They would walk alone if that house wasn’t haunted.

In other words the first paragraph disorientates the reader; allows the reader to think the ‘problem’ – or the ‘issue’ as we might now say – lies with house, when the problem might really be with one of the characters about to pay Hill House a visit…

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You’re My Next Victim – Stephen King’s It

Late one night Stephen King woke me up. I was perhaps nine or ten. At first I had no idea I was lying awake, then – when I realised I was staring into darkness – I realised I had no idea why I was awake. I heard soft chuckling – just a gentle laughter in the darkness – that I couldn’t place in space. It could have been coming from under my bed. I lay still for several moments, a little nervous, wondering if I had heard what I thought I’d heard.

Then I heard it again.

I got out of bed and put an ear to my door, hearing nothing. I opened it and walked out onto the dark landing. I saw my parents’ bedroom light was on so went in to ask if either of them had heard the chuckling. My mother wasn’t there, but my dad was sat up reading It, and it was his laughing which had woke me up. He said he was laughing because the scene he was reading had some kids who were squatted down lighting each other’s farts. I told him his chuckling had woke me up and that it was a little creepy hearing giggling in the darkness, but it was alright now I knew what was going on. I went back to bed and slept without trouble. That was the first time Stephen King disturbed my sleep.

I didn’t know then that the scene in which those bullies light their farts – and it certainly is funny – is followed by a wonderful scene in which a twelve year old boy, Patrick Hockstetter, is half murdered by a swarm of flying leeches. One leech pierces his eyelid and sucks the eyeball until it collapses, and another lands on his tongue, sucks blood until it’s bloated, and then explodes in his mouth. Young Mr Hockstetter passes out as he’s dragged into the sewers by the entity called It, and he awakens only when, in the dark somewhere under the city, the creature begins to eat him. That might be gross, but here’s the thing: Patrick Hockstetter had it coming.

Stephen King’s It was published in September 1986. Thirty years later many fan-polls and blogs still cite the book as either his best or the fans’ favourite. Sometimes fans confuse a writer’s best work with their favourite work from that writer. Defining a writer’s “best” work is trickier than it sounds. It is probably not King’s best work, but it’s one which has its popularity secured by a collection of characters the reader easily sympathises with. The depth to which King thinks his characters into existence is remarkable.

Consider this for instance. Claudette Sanders – the first character mentioned in King’s Under the Dome – is taking a flying lesson, paid for by her wealthy husband, Andy. We are told of her that, although not exactly spoiled, she “had undeniably expensive tastes which, lucky man, Andy seemed to have no trouble satisfying.” At the end of the next page (page two) the control panel of the plane dies, and eight lines of prose later, Claudette’s body parts are falling on Chester’s Mill. Here’s a character created to be killed to open the novel, but King still gives her a whiff of backstory when he mentions her “expensive tastes”. Such a small detail begins to show the character’s character. Yet by the end of page three she’s dead. This is mildly extraordinary. We are forced to ask ourselves, if King thinks this much about a character who doesn’t last even two full-pages of prose, to what extent did King think about his Loser’s Club of kids?

Each of the seven children he creates to battle the entity are losers for different reasons. Bill stutters; Richie can’t keep his mouth shut, and has what might now be called “hyperactivity disorder” – or some other similar nonsense. Ben is fat and a loner; Eddie is the wimpy kid; Stan is Jewish; Beverly is poor and Mike is black. All these circumstances make the kids unpopular in 1958, not part of the “in” crowd at school. This is something which most of us can relate to, either by not having been one of the cool-kids, or remembering some unfortunate kid whose mum sent him in wearing Hi-tech trainers. (When I was a young teenager wearing Hi-techs was more or less a death sentence. Some parents are criminally fucking stupid. And here’s a darker thought: perhaps some parents secretly hate their children?) Thus we recognise something of our past selves in the kids King creates to face the creature. The Loser’s Club has something for everyone’s memory.

Many of us enjoy the regressing to childhood. We look at pictures and video from when we were kids and indulge our sadomasochistic side by going to the “school reunion”. Childhood is idealised in our memory and children, especially babies, are cooed at and fawned over.  This might be why so many of us are wet and feeble weaklings when we grow up. The Romans, not fond of children, thinking them rather gross and needy creatures, used childhood as the time to train and prepare for adulthood, without the cooing and fawning. Who would argue Roman men weren’t made of “sterner stuff” than us males are today?

Although we have a tale in which children are murdered and eaten, the book is pitched at the place where most adults are vulnerable: in our desire for nostalgia and our moist-eyed attitude to childhood. We can be pulled into the novel, let’s say, by Ben falling in love with Beverley Marsh because he sees her ankle bracelet, but we don’t need to understand what he feels precisely; to understand the ache in his belly  we need only to have some memory of our own for comparison.

It’s too easy to decide that King – or part of him at any rate – is to be found in the character of Bill Denbrough. King would have been the same age as the Losers in 1958, and Denbrough is the character who becomes a horror writer, his books inspired by his childhood experiences. Perhaps the Denbrough / King thing is too obvious on purpose? If King – allowing the nostalgia power to work on him as well as through him – puts himself in the book, perhaps he’s split between Bill and Richie. Bill stutters – so can’t express himself properly, while Richie expresses himself too well, yet hides behind characters who find expression through the voices Richie uses throughout.

Bill and Richie, working together, go to the House on Neibolt Street to kill It with Bill’s father’s gun. While in the basement, the creature comes down the stairs to get them in the form of the werewolf from the 1957 movie I was a Teenage Werewolf. Richie has recently seen this movie and it made an impression on him. It made an impression on King, too. Writing in Danse Macabre, King talks of the film and mentions the change from boy to monster. ‘For a high school or junior high school kid watching the transformation for the first time,’ King says, ‘this was baaad shit.’ He then points out the basics of the matter: the unfortunate teenage boy

grows hair all over his face, produces long fangs, and begins to drool a substance that looks suspiciously like Burma-Shave. He peeks at a girl doing exercises on the balance beam all by herself in the gymnasium, and one imagines him smelling like a randy polecat who just rolled in a nice fresh pile of coyote shit.

(For completeness, that teenage girl in the gymnasium was a twenty-two year old woman called Dawn Richard – a Playboy centrefold.)

Richie and Ben might be confronted by a werewolf because that represents what they’re most scared of at that time, yet the werewolf – the one from the movie, and the one in the novel, because the one in the novel is the one from the movie – symbolises something else: a fear of puberty and the sexual awakening which turns pleasant little boys into ravenous monsters. (Beverly – the only girl in the gang – recounts how It appeared to her as spurts of blood from the plughole in the bathroom. This is what she’s most afraid of, perhaps, for similar reasons to Bill and Richie; or because once her father knows she’s bleeding, he might want to take their relationship to the next level.) These fears are wrapped into a colourful package of classic American popular culture – the monsters from the movies – and might be dismissed for that reason as nostalgia for King, or for Americans generally of a certain age, but those hooks are universal, they lurk under the surface and will pierce the psyche somewhere of anyone old enough to read the book. (The cover of Detective Comics 671 has Batman protecting a screaming woman while surrounded by Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and the Werewolf – all monsters used by It – and that issue, from February 1994, was not aimed at people who were kids in 1955. Perhaps it’s fair to assume that teenage boys, from different eras, have the same preoccupations?)

The novel is pitched directly at the child you once were. In that way, it’s a shameless pitch, and too much of the book force-feeds us on the topic of “the magic of childhood”. This isn’t a vague term, interchangeable with “the best days of your life”, or something similar. King’s childhood magic is exactly that: a force which is somehow aware of the kids and uses them (and helps them) to battle the ancient entity under the city.

For example, Beverly – hiding from the boys lighting their farts, yet watching them closely – is attacked by one of the leeches which punches holes in Patrick Hockstetter. Beverly is the crack-shot of the gang; she’s armed with a Bulleye – a catapult which fires ball bearings. She loads it, aims at the leech she’s just pulled off her arm, and as soon as the metal ball leaves the pouch, she knows she’s missed her target.

But then she saw the ball-bearing curve. It happened in a split second, but the impression was very clear: it had curved. It struck the flying thing and splattered it to mush. There was a shower of yellowish droplets which pattered on the path.

The power the creature has is worth wondering about. It seems to have omnipotence and omniscience when it needs it, but these powers fail It when it suits King. Does the creature have powers or not? Two scenes with the Bullseye allow the reader to wonder.

Patrick Hockstetter is a child-psychopath, easily the most demented character in the book. His dementia means he isn’t scared of anything and this lack of fear makes things tricky when It comes out of hiding after sending the flying leeches. Hockstetter sees the creature come out from behind a junked car. He notices that

its face was running like wax. Sometimes it began to harden and look like something – or someone – and then it would start to run again, as if it couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to be.

It says only ‘hello and goodbye’ to Patrick in a “bubbling voice”, yet Beverley hears her father say ‘hello and goodbye’. On the surface we understand this. Al Marsh is the person (thing) she is most afraid of (and had Beverly seen what had happened, not just heard it, she would have seen her father drag him off.) But this small scene actually poses problems for the novel’s logic. The creature can’t settle on what image to appear as to Hockstetter because it’s getting nothing from Hockstetter. It seems to be trying to “get a reading” but Patrick’s mind is blank of fears. Now on the novel’s logic, had Mike Hanlon been hiding with Beverly he would have heard It squawk ‘hello and goodbye’ like the giant bird; Richie would have heard the words in the sound of a werewolf’s snarl. So either It can broadcast on all frequencies or it relies on its victims to interpret one signal. Yet if it relies on its victims to interpret one signal, why is It bothering to shape-shift ‘as if it couldn’t make up its mind’? It implies the creature’s shapeshifting runs on some sort of evolved instinct – like an animal changing its colouring to suit the surroundings. This poses questions about the creature’s will, and therefore its abilities. What seems a way of demonstrating just how deranged Hockstetter is, actually dilutes the horror a little because it suggests the creature is simply feeding, rather than being actively wicked. We can get all gooey when the lion tears the baby antelope apart, but we don’t think the lion is doing anything bad. Yet we’re told It uses the tactic of appearing as whatever its victim is scared of deliberately. The fear is what ‘salts the meat’ for the entity. King seems to want things all ways, here.

Another curious scene with the Bullseye occurs back in the house on Neibolt street. The kids are there, armed with the silver-slugs they have made, to confront and kill It. Beverley almost wastes one silver-slug on a rat before Bill roars at her not to fire.

‘It wanted me to shoot at it,’ Beverly said in a faint voice. ‘Use up half our ammunition on it.’

    ‘Yes,’ Bill said. ‘It’s l-l-like the FBI training r-range at Quh-Quh-Quantico, in a w-w-way. They seh-send y-you down this f-f-hake street and pop up tuh-targets. If you shuh-shoot any honest citizens ih-instead of just cruh-crooks, you l-lose puh hoints.’

 This makes surface sense. But this scene, like the one in the junkyard with the leeches, poses questions about the will of the creature. The children believe the silver will kill the monster because that’s what the movies and comics say, and it seems the creature is damaged by what the children believe. Once It knows it’s the werewolf which scares them, it takes on the appearance of the werewolf, but also the monster’s weaknesses. Doing this strongly implies a lack of choice on the part of the creature. This scene is like a portal into the novel’s subtext. The novel’s creature is forced to have weaknesses because the novel’s subtext is that the fears the children have are of their own making, and are strong enough to manifest into reality: fear of bigger kids, of bullies; fear of illness and of monsters from the movies; fear of coming sexuality and the perils of puberty.

This is best shown when Beverly pulls back the Bullseye to fire, knowing very well she’s out of ammo. The creature believes they have another slug because the Losers act as if they do, yet a few pages before the creature was trying to get them to waste ammo on a rat, seemingly knowing what they were armed with.

Here the subtext actually breaches the surface into the action. (Another example is when It chases Mike Hanlon at the derelict ironworks: why doesn’t it morph into a smaller bird, or anything else small enough to get into the smoke-stack Mike hides in? One can only assume it doesn’t because it can’t. This is partially explained on page 990, when, from It’s point of view, we’re told that ‘all living things must abide by the laws of the shape they inhabit. For the first time It realised that perhaps Its ability to change Its shapes might work against It as well as for It.’)

One has to ask if the creature has the ability to change shapes when it chooses to do so or not? If yes, why doesn’t it do so? If no, then this really is where a portal into the subtext could actually be a rip in the dimension between the fiction and its subtext. One must remember that the characters do not know they are characters in a novel.

Most kids are scared of spiders and many adults remain scared of them. So when the empowered kids get under the city and discover the thing’s form – the closest approximation to its real form the human mind can see – is a giant spider, there isn’t much shock in that. Indeed, the spider’s appearance was foreshadowed. On page 404, there’s this exchange between Beverly and her mother, discussing the spider she pretended she saw when the blood spurted from her bathroom sink. She asks her mother if she had seen the spider, and her mother replies

‘I didn’t see any spider. I wish we could afford a little new linoleum for that bathroom floor.’ She glanced at the sky, which was blue and cloudless. ‘They say if you kill a spider it brings rain. You didn’t kill it, did you?’

    ‘No,’ Beverly said. ‘I didn’t kill it.’

It’s a nice touch that King has the mother note the sky is blue and cloudless before she worries about rain. The exchange clearly foreshadows hundreds of pages (and thirty years in time) later when the grownups think they kill the spider and downtown Derry is destroyed in a downpour, flooding the place and destroying the standpipe. The spider is again foreshadowed just prior to Mike Hanlon meeting the Losers for the first time during the scene in which Henry Bowers (possessed by It, as are the adults such as Beverly’s dad and Eddie’s mother) chases him. This drives Hanlon to the Losers, where he becomes their final member and they attack the Bowers gang in The Apocalyptic Rockfight. While chasing Mike, Henry throws a cherry-bomb (an extraordinarily dangerous firework banned in 1966) and in panic, Hanlon scales a fence and Henry follows; he stops on the way up to order his cronies to keep going, and was ‘hung there like a bloated poisonous spider in human shape.’ It’s a safe bet that if you’re not actually scared of spiders, you probably won’t be picking them up and stroking them like you would a puppy. Spiders are a scare catch-all. Spiders lay eggs, and King’s spider lays plenty.

Ben saw something new: a trail of eggs. Each was black and rough-shelled, perhaps as big as an ostrich-egg. A waxy light shone from within them. Ben realised they were semi-transparent; he could see black shapes moving inside.

He has Ben stamp on them and kill the spidery things inside as they squeal while trying to escape. In 1986, this image should have been familiar to horror fans. One month before King published It, James Cameron released Aliens, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien from 1979. In one early scene from Aliens, Ripley is talking to a collection of suits who have been trying to get her to justify detonating her ship. She tells them ‘Kane who went into that ship said he saw thousands of eggs there. Thousands.’ Nobody who has seen Alien will forget those eggs, and the spidery, face-hugger things which come out of them. The imagery in Aliens – the humans strung-up, ready to be hosts for the face-huggers; the semi-transparent eggs with something inside; the deadly female creature which lays them – are all repeated in It when the Losers chase the spider, and who would argue the Queen in Aliens isn’t a little spider-like? Even Bill’s wife, Audra, is strung-up in the spider’s web, a morsel to be eaten later, just like the colonists found by the Marines in Aliens. This isn’t a coincidence.

Like the alien Queen in Aliens, King makes his monster female, and there’s something nauseating about that image: a female spider laying eggs. Alien and Aliens tap into this directly with the idea of a human being a host for another living thing; though in King’s novel the spider doesn’t use humans as hosts – and only eats its victims because its victims expect it to – there’s a connection the films share with the novel, and the similar imagery is striking. Entire papers could be written on our fear of spiders and the identical images which the novel shares with the two horror films.

The story is a “coming-of-age” tale and nostalgia trip buried under popular horror wrapped in classic American pop-culture and movie history. The journey, from child to adolescent and then to “grownup” is a hard and depressing one: full of fear which sits in a belly which aches for different reasons. The battle the children have under the city, in the tunnels, is an important one, and those dark, scary tunnels are important, but the most important tunnel in the story is on the surface: the tunnel between the children’s library and the adult library. This tunnel is mentioned several times, and after the destruction of Derry, explodes for a reason which is not explained, leaving both libraries as separate buildings. It is suggested that the trip from child to adult is always going to be a hard one, with no shortcuts:

if you wanted to get from the Children’s Library to the adult library, you had to walk outside to do it. And if it was cold, or raining, or snowing, you had to put on your coat.

There’s no escape for any child; there’s no easy path from kid to grownup, and the truth is that while we happily skip about as a kid, telling everyone we’re doing fine and hoping they believe it, there’s terror going under the surface.

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Graceful Monstors

In the genre of horror fiction, many authors have touched upon the same subject matter and populated their works with similar characters. Serial-killers, Cop-killers, Child-killers: they have featured in hundreds of novels and films over the years. The same is true of Lovecraftian demons and spirits. Stories of haunting and possession are as old as history, and the deformed, shape-shifting and deceitful entities that are responsible for those haunting tales, have themselves featured many times across the work of authors whose lives have been separated by centuries. There appears to be nothing original under the sun.

Some writers do have an original take on an old story or character type, though. For example, in his novel, Cell, Stephen King has battalions of flesh eating zombies doing some nasty things to the population of Boston.  Zombie tales and movies tend to keep to a standard pattern: zombie eats you alive, you then become a zombie yourself, and you eat your mum or another dispensable support character. No explanation tends to be offered why the dead have decided to rise – or why they are so hungry – and the main plot of these stories revolves around the survival attempts of a few desperate groups of humans. Some of these elements are true of Cell, but there is one remarkable and original difference to King’s Zombies: they are alive.

The un-dead – or phoners, as King calls them – have received a mysterious signal through their mobiles which sends them violently insane. Their behaviour is similar to run-of-the-mill un-dead flesh-eaters from books and movies of the past, but only up to a point. King soon takes his readers away from the conventional as his story unfolds.

The movie Wolf Creek is another example of giving a tired format a decent revival. A serial killer, roaming at his leisure across Western Australia, kills tourists visiting the Wolf Creek meteorite crater. The psycho-is-chasing-you format has been done in dozens of movies – hundreds, more likely – though in this film we have a refreshing change. The psycho is a decent bloke. There are no funny facial ticks, no talking to voices in his head; the killer is played straight by John Jarrett, and is much scarier for it. Even at his most violent, Mick Taylor, Jarrett’s character, never falls into parody: Jarrett plays the part as if he was influenced by no other performance on stage or screen – a remarkable achievement, actually.

Wolf Creek has another piece of originality going for it: there is no double-take used by the director. This shock technique features in so many horror films that its effectiveness has been diluted. We all have seen this at work. The camera stands behind a scared character; they look left, and the camera looks with them. There is never a baddie to be seen. Then, they look right – again the camera follows to show the madman is nowhere around. And then – guess what – they look left again and the psycho’s face is inches from theirs. You never saw that coming.

Actually, there was a time when cinema audiences were scared to death by that now much over-used technique. The double-take was first used by director David Lean in his version of Great Expectations (1946). It was used to introduce Pip to Magwitch, and, famously, to introduce Magwitch to the audience. It worked brilliantly. So much so, less original directors still use it

Murderous psychopaths belong to no-one – they can’t be copyrighted, so there is no quality control in place. The same is true of all types of horror villain and monster. If you get lucky, you watch or read something that catches the attention because it breaks the normal way of telling that story or presenting those characters.

Richard Matheson’s Vampire novel, I am legend (1954) has a protagonist who is considered a terrorist – an outcast, because he is in a minority (a minority of one, as it happens) and the rest of the population of Los Angeles is a blood-sucker. The novel offers the theory that vampires are the next evolutionary step for mankind. This is better than presenting them as Satan’s disciples on earth, who avoid garlic and drink virgins’ blood. That version of vampires has been overdone.

But then vampires are the one of the most popular horror novel or movie creatures; it is not surprising there is so much pap printed on paper and celluloid about the fictional blood-suckers; but, there are writers who offer an intriguing and original take on this type of story.

Anne Rice is one of them. Her novel, Interview with the vampire, (1976) was a best-seller, and the first of eleven novels collectively known as The Vampire Chronicles. The series tells of the adventures of Lestat De Lioncourt, a French aristocrat and actor, who was kidnapped and turned into a vampire in 17th Century Paris.

Lestat is posh but penniless. He ventures into the big city with Nicholas, his companion to expand their horizons and make their fortune. Nicholas, a talented violinist, takes work in the orchestra pit of a theatre while Lestat, ever the show off, treads the boards. Life is perfect. They take-in the sumptuous city: the people; the wine; the food – they indulge their passions, but Lestat becomes un-easy at the sight of a curious white face in the audience each night. Someone is stalking him.

Rice offers a mix of Dickens blended with Dorian Gray. There is the overpopulated metropolis with the detritus-ridden underbelly, and slopping about upon its surface are the beautiful people; drowning in decadence and drunk on wine and passion.

Lestat, for all his foppish, Wildean extravagance, has a killer’s blood pumping through his veins. Before eloping to Paris, he killed a pack of wolves that had been slaughtering people from his home village. On horseback, with his beloved Mastiffs by his side, he hunted and killed them. Doing so cost him his horse and his dogs, but the starving villagers and their cattle had a chance to make it through a cruel winter. He was a hero, but the folly of setting off alone demonstrated his maverick side. It is that – along with his physical beauty – that captures the attention of Magnus, the vampire with the ghostly white face who has been stalking him.

It is here that Rice begins to deviate from the norm as far as tradition and popularity in vampire stories go. Vampires in her world are capable of love and passion, they are capable of guilt and sadness – they are monsters, they are un-dead – but why should that mean they must be mindless demons, automatically slaying any human they spot? Rice’s vampires choose how they behave. Too many times in horror fiction vampires are portrayed as being enslaved by the insatiable thirst for blood; they kill because of it. It’s their addiction and their food. Not so with Anne Rice.

The thirst is nothing more than a demonic craving, leading to madness if not slacked, but not required for continued existence. Her monsters are a human / spirit hybrid; the spirit element craves the blood, but the human side – the physical body – no longer requires nourishment. As her vampires age, slowly the thirst subsides until the ancient ones, those at least a thousand years old, no longer need it at all. And with age comes ever increasing powers.

Magnus is one of the ancient ones. He chooses Lestat as his heir after murdering hundreds of similar looking victims. Lestat has the perfect balance of beauty and aggression and Magnus, after taunting him in his dreams – calling him wolf-killer – takes him to his lair and turns him, and does so, much against Lestat’s will.

Rice’s hero continues his life, but as a vampire. He still visits his favourite places and enjoys the culture of the time. He is frequently found in the theatres, cafes and strolling along the banks of the Seine. The circumstances of his existence have changed, but his tastes, and his entire thinking mind, have not. It makes her characters far more engaging than the one-track-mind demons that meander from one virgin neck to another. It also demonstrates Rice’s skill as an author. A lead character needs to elicit sympathy from the readers of a novel or the audience of a movie. Rice’s Lestat is a mass murderer, and she still makes him engaging and sympathetic.

Play it straight and tell the truth, that is the safest way. It is too easy to make a murderer lose credibility by getting carried away with the killer’s dark side. Even a murderer has a sense of humour. John Jarret played it this way in Wolf Creek, but he’s not the only one to get the portrayal of a killer spot-on.

Harrison Ford did a similarly grand job in What lies Beneath (2000). He gives, possibly, his best performance as Dr. Norman Spencer, an academic who puts his research first. In one scene, Ford’s character is explaining to his wife how her death will bring him and her daughter closer together. It is clear he means it; he will look after his step-daughter, and provide the very best for her. As he explains this to his wife, he is filling the bath to drown her. It is the incongruity written into the scene, topped off with Ford’s delivery that gives the scene its power. Even allowing for Dr. Spencer’s insanity, he never once comes across as dangerous. He is a graceful monster. And where is it written that madness has to be dangerous? Who decided insanity must lead to murder?

One film comes to mind with a lead character so psychologically damaged that it is remarkable not a single member of the cast gets slaughtered; a movie with the most deranged protagonist: The King of Comedy (1983) is that film.

Robert de Niro plays the psychopath, Rupert Pupkin, a stand-up comedian with delusions (literally) of grandeur. It is one of the most disturbing movies I have seen. Not a single murder, hardly any violence, yet the impression left by this film lasts long in the mind. It is very uncomfortable viewing. It proves dead bodies and gore will always come second to a quality script and decent actors in the race to disturb an audience. To creep under the radar requires no trickery. It requires you pick the lock of their critical shields and slip inside using truth. This is why gore-sodden celluloid like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) will make an audience squirm, will make them jump, but will never get access to the place where humans are truly vulnerable.  Movies such as Saw and Hostel – and many others, of course – will try and batter their way in using boring tricks and double-takes.

Those blades are blunt.

A Snail on the Moon

Time-loop paradox stories are the worst type of science-fiction, and that’s because the best type of science fiction is hard science fiction – and you can’t get softer than a time-loop paradox.

Actually, Triangle (2009) is not awful, but it is only redeemed at the end when we realise Melissa George’s character has died. This makes her predicament quite unpleasant to think about, and Stephen King said his own idea of Hell is repetition – and it’s easy to see his point.

Predestination (2014) is a film which deserves to be tied to a post and shot. (Or blown out the nearest airlock.)

What could be the motivation of the Spierig brothers to adapt such a stupid story?

The point of good science fiction is to open the minds of the readers and viewers to our insignificance in the universe: only when we have a grasp of our smallness can we begin to appreciate the cosmos. This means more than just being told we’re small and accepting it’s true, it means feeling small. The only thing of mine which opened when I watched Predestination was my mouth when I yawned.

The start-point for fiction is the what-if question. That’s a good place to start, but the what if should be something possible, if only theoretically.  Which is going to lead to a better story: a what if which might happen, or a what if which could never happen?

That’s Predestination’s problem.

Acknowledging the original short story from the 50s, it’s a sort of The Adjustment Bureau meets The Man Who Folded Himself meets Coherence type movie.

So, yes, if a person could travel back in time they could fuck about with themselves when they were younger, and end up becoming their own parents and children and lord knows who else. It’s all really interesting…but it’s impossible. And ‘impossible’ is the first thing decent science fiction needs to avoid.

Would anyone care about a story about Sammy the snail, who, after overcoming significant personal problems, realised his dream of becoming an astronaut and visiting the moon?

Thought not.

I think sometimes fiction is pointless. I never thought I’d say that: I always thought I would grant to the fiction writer any amount of licence, but impossible science fiction seems to me to be a crime against fiction. Calling it fantasy sci-fi won’t wash because you make the word science absurd.

Yes – I’m being harsh.

Hell of a Ghost

Daniel Radcliffe, for reasons not obvious to me, was offered the lead role in an adaptation of Susan Hill’s Woman in Black. It is a curious piece of casting because Radcliffe is no actor worthy of the title. His acting skills are playing catch-up to his success. This should be the other way about. The novel (acknowledging the stage-play and the television adaptation) is, or should be, the first stop for anyone wanting to take in the tale properly. That the awful film will be the first experience many have of this excellent tale is a shame.

It is worth having a look at the book because Susan Hill takes the classic elements from the genre – used in countless tales – and makes them all fit perfectly. There is the swirling mist; the old and creaky house; the locals who are reluctant to “talk about it” and the sound of horses clip-clopping about in the darkness and all the rest. When you read the book you get the sense of the familiar, that what’s coming is every ghost story you have ever read. Things do not bode well for the book in that respect, yet Hill makes all the ostensibly clichéd elements work.

That the story is written in the first person forces Hill to impose a heavy burden upon herself and her narrator by declaring, at the outset, that the tale is almost too terrifying to recount. One gets the sense she does this to force her imagination to cash the cheques her introductory pages have written. At any rate she delivers the creepiest 160 pages I have read in a while.

We are told of a ghost-story game in which Arthur Kipps cannot participate because for him to tell the scariest story he can think of means talking of the woman in black and he cannot bring this woman to a scary, but innocent, family game; rather, he composes himself and writes the tale we hold in our hands as a way of finally shaking the last cobwebs of the horror from his psyche. The novel is an act of therapy for him. After reading it, one understands his position perfectly.

In a great many tales of this kind the ghost has a purpose. It tends to want to avenge some terrible injustice and manipulate a character into finding the evidence to convict a person who had done them wrong. Sometimes the ghost can be ingenious, sometimes “in your face”, sometimes both. Hill has said her ghost needed to have a purpose and, goodness me, she gives it one, but is no more than obsessively malicious.

So to begin with we have Arthur Kipps – a twenty-three year old solicitor – being assigned to collate the papers of Mrs Drablow, a Miss Havisham type character who occupied the obligatory secluded house at the end of a causeway which is passable only during low-tide. Kipps is London-based – the Drablow estate is hidden away in some far-flung and cold estuary – and Hill uses her early pages to give the reader a sense of the horrors to come. Even the London fog through which Kipps moves is something more than pea-soup:

In the streets, there was a din, of brakes grinding and horns blowing, and the shouts of a hundred drivers, slowed down and blinded by the fog, and, as I peered from out of the cab window into the gloom, what figures I could make out, fumbling their way through the murk, were like ghost figures, their mouths and lower faces muffled in scarves and veils and handkerchiefs, but on gaining the temporary safety of some pool of light they became red-eyed and demonic.

That is just a drive through some fog. It is typical of the tone that Hill has her narrator set, and the tone of voice, the way of speaking used by Kipps, helps this along. Though he is but twenty-three he talks like a sixty year old would now; in a slightly formal and much better educated way; he has a stiffness which implies a sort of Christian abstention in certain matters. We know he will not be living it up while away working on the Drablow papers. He wants to file an excellent piece of work to his boss – who is more tightly–collared and stuffier than him – and use his assignment as a stepping stone to advancement within the firm. With advancement comes more money which would allow him to support a wife and child. He exudes typical, lower-middle class aspirations. His world is one of ink wells, large dusty ledgers and stiff, creaking wooden chairs and offices of absolute silence. The year is not given, but the impression is that the year cannot be later than 1910.

Hill slips but twice, as far as I can spot, with her narrator’s language. Consider these passages:

I had been both relieved and pleased when finally he took me into full partnership with himself, after so many years, while at the same time believing the position to be no more than my due, for I had done my fair share of the donkey work and borne a good deal of the burden of responsibility for directing the fortunes of the firm with, I felt, inadequate reward – at least in terms of position.

And:

I saw the face of my watch. It was barely three o’clock and I hoped that the candle would burn until dawn, which on a stormy day at this fag end of the year would come late.

In both passages Hill allows her narrator, as it were, to “drop an aitch”. From the first, the phrase “donkey work”, and from the second, “fag-end” stand-out. Whether they sound too modern for the person talking is not quite the point. They sound too scruffy for him to be saying. These are the only examples I can find, and they jumped off the page as I read. Apart from these two minor lapses the narrator’s language – the word choice, tone, the visual impressions offered and so on – is first rate and the thoughts I had at the back of my mind were of a smarter, more restrained world, a world of propriety and good manners; a world, in other words, long gone.

His long journey up-country comes to an end in the small town of Crythin Gifford where he has lodgings in the pub, the Gifford Arms. Hardly could his first night have been a better one. He brushes the locals’ reluctance to discuss Mrs Drablow aside:

On the whole, that night, with my stomach full of home-cooked food, a pleasing drowsiness induced by good wine, and the sight of the low fire, and inviting, turned-back covers of the deep, soft bed, I was inclined to let myself enjoy the whole business, and to be amused by it, as adding a touch of spice and local colour to my expedition, and I fell asleep most peacefully. I can still recall it, that sensation of slipping down, down into the welcoming arms of sleep, surrounded by warmth and softness, happy and secure as a small child in the nursery.

You feel almost drowsy reading it…

Kipps’s first engagement is the funeral of Mrs Drablow. For this he adopts a “professionally mournful expression” as he takes his place in the cold church. Towards the end of the service, our narrator sees the woman in black for the first time. I think a longer quote is appropriate for this moment in the story:

On hearing a slight rustle behind me, I half turned, discreetly and caught a glimpse of another mourner, a woman, who must have slipped into the church after we of the funeral party had taken our places and who stood several rows behind and quite alone, very erect and still, and not holding a prayer book. She was dressed in deepest black, in the style of full mourning that had rather gone out of fashion except, I imagined, in court circles on the most formal of occasions. Indeed, it had clearly been dug out of some old trunk or wardrobe, for its blackness was a little rusty looking. A bonnet-type hat covered her head and shaded her face, but, although I did not stare, even the swift glance I took of the woman showed me enough to recognise that she was suffering from some terrible wasting disease, for not only was she extremely pale, even more than a contrast with the blackness of her garments could account for, but the skin, and, it seemed, only the thinnest layer of flesh was tautly stretched and strained across her bones, so that it gleamed with a curious blue-white sheen.

There she is. Just watching. Look at the descriptions of her, and, knowing she’s a ghost, pick out the most salient point to pay attention to – the piece of information which might reveal her character. The most salient point is the easiest to miss. She is not holding a prayer book. That little detail tells you, pretty much, all you need to know about this entity. The passage is the first sighting – not so much of a ghost with a sulk – but of the visual representation of a supernatural, malevolent force with a weapons-grade grudge. No prayer book? I wonder why…

There is a little problem here. From where, exactly, does the creature in black (and any ghost come to that) derive, not its hostility, but its ability to employ that hostility? Why does being dead give it more power to “make things happen” than it had in life? Innumerable ghost stories allow this question to go unanswered. If we are to follow the spiritual reasoning then, a living human has access to the same spiritual planes and energies as the spirit of a dead human has; in fact, the spirit of a living human, it could be argued, is more powerful than the spirit of a dead one because the body is a battery, feeding power to the psychic planes. Yet no haunting is done until the aggrieved person dies. If the woman in black was (and is) resentful about this or that, then her spirit could have done some haunting while she was alive – freed from physical constraints while she slept: Her astral-ghost could have got up to mischief and she would have been unaware of it, at least consciously. I know of no ghost story in which the spirit is of a living person does the haunting. Yet Robert Bruce, for example, mentions in his non-fiction book, Astral Dynamics, that the astral-ghost of a living person is “not to be trifled with”. There is a contradiction between those who write about ghosts as fiction and those who write of the spiritual world and astral planes as non-fiction. Stephen King answers the question of how some ghosts might obtain their “abilities” in Bag of Bones.

The ghost of the narrator’s wife has been forcing her way back down to the lower frequencies of the physical world to make her former husband aware of a thing or two. In contrast to many other ghosts in books and film and television, which can trash bedrooms in absolute silence (the woman in black included), this, it is implied, is no easy task for the kindly spirit in question. Another spirit in this story, the spiteful Sara (whose motivations are the same as the woman in black’s), has been haunting the locals – and forcing them to sacrifice their own children – for decades.

Mike Noonan, King’s narrator, is warned by his wife’s ghost to jolly-well get a move on, and makes his own observations:

“Git out, bitch!” the Sara-thing snarled. It raised its arms toward Jo as it had raised them to me in my worst nightmares.

   “Not at all.” Jo’s voice remained calm. She turned toward me. “Hurry, Mike. You have to be quick. It’s not really her anymore. She’s let one of the Outsiders in, and they’re very dangerous.

   Sara shrieked and then began to spin. Leaves and branches blurred together and lost coherence; it was like watching something liquefy in a food blender. The entity which had only looked a little like a woman to begin with now dropped its masquerade entirely.

Well, quite. Hill has her woman in black have – or rather be – a force with unpleasant intentions, but suggests nothing which might explain where her abilities and her power come from. We are left to suppose that, well, she’s a ghost, and that’s what ghosts do. But a pact made in the afterlife, with not so much another non-physical entity as a never-physical entity, would have explained the question of ghosts’ powers and posed some unsettling questions about bargaining on the other side of the tapestry.

 Enquiries are made by Kipps about this wretched creature (the correct word) and they follow obviously from what he has seen, and to her credit, Hill doesn’t even come close to the clichéd dialogue and behaviour of the locals which can be found in, say, the work of James Herbert. (What I’m talking about is any local who describes their village and surrounding area as “these parts”. Anyone who has read Herbert’s The Secret of Crickley Hall­ – just as an example – will know what I mean.) No, they change the subject and it is obvious they will not be drawn, but there are no “get out while ye can!” moments.

In any event Kipps begins his job of collating Mrs Drablow’s papers and the creature in black rather takes a shine to him straight away. It is difficult to understand the creature’s motivations as regards her interest in the young solicitor. Take, as an example, the little dog which a local man gives to Kipps to keep him company while working at the Drablow house. This dog scratches and snarls at the doors during the night, and nothing too bad happens to Kipps while the dog is about. Later, while taking a breath of air outside, someone unseen out in the mist on the marshes which surround the house whistles to the dog and off it scampers. It is the creature up to no good, drawing the dog away from Kipps and onto the marshes to slowly sink and drown. But why? It is unclear if the creature does this so that Kipps can feel the pain of a loved one lost to the marshes, or if her intentions are more sinister: Getting the dog away so she can get to him. The second explanation is certainly creepier, but both are unsatisfactory.

That animals snarl and bark at entities unseen to humans is nothing new in fiction, but it makes no sense that any ghost – certainly not the woman in black – should be bothered or in any way put off by a little canine scratching and sniffing about the place. What can a little dog do against this negative force that a human cannot? Why should the woman in black be kept at bay by no more than a little dog? It implies that all a person need do is behave aggressively toward the ghost and she will lose her bottle. It might be the case that the ghost simply wants to kill the dog on the marshes so Kipps can feel a little of what she felt, but, given her spite, that would never be enough for her and doesn’t fit very tidily anyhow. (Later, she scares a horse to take her revenge, so why is a tiny dog considered a problem, but a muscular horse easily spooked – and able to know that the woman in black is something to be scared of to begin with?)

If she wants rid of the dog to somehow and in some way get closer to Kipps, then I wonder what prevented her getting as close as she wanted before the dog was introduced. The goings-on with the dog question the whole point of the ghost’s haunting, questions the idea that the entity is all-powerful and fearless, and, in so doing, weakens the book in a subtle but fundamental way. In short, what on earth is she scared of?

The haunting experienced by Kipps does not always take the form of visions or mysterious sounds. During one period spent at the Drablow house, Kipps is made to feel an aching sorrow in his heart, an absolute sadness which takes him by surprise and shocks him with its intensity. This is, clearly, the woman in black haunting him, but in a different way to the usual. It is with this kind of haunting that one wonders if the woman in black is motivated by the desire to express no more than how she felt when the tragedy, which Kipps is yet to discover, happened. It seems like a play for sympathy in a sense, the ghost saying “You see! You see how bad it was for me!” This, like the scenario with the dog, offers some questions. Why does the woman in black want Kipps to feel this way, to feel the agonizing heartbreak she was forced to endure? If he concentrates on this, understands it, and realises that the woman was hideously torn by the tragedy, perhaps she might leave him alone? She might feel as if she has, finally, made her point? But it might be a form of torture, a way to make him suffer before….what? One wonders what would have happened to Kipps if he had, quite simply, stayed in the house and let the woman in black do her worst. That she haunts is hardly in question, but exactly why she does it is unclear for most of the book.

Hill layers the scares and the shocks, builds them one on the other, but this seems to be for our benefit, the readers, who are tugged slowly along and the pressure increased little by little. Kipps is dismissive of the ghostly question and then accepting too easily, he moves from A to B too smoothly. A man in his position – by which I mean a solicitor with an analytical mind – would be more determined to find the logical explanation behind the facts and evidence which presented themselves before succumbing to the horrific truth. (And I think it unlikely that such a person would succumb so easily, anyhow. Most of us see the evidence which strengthens our beliefs rather than weakens them. All kinds of problems are caused by this small piece of psychology.)

So on he goes, delving into the papers of the deceased woman and getting deeper embroiled in the history of the family and the tragedy which is the woman in black’s motivation.

That the book is written in the first person, and set years after the adventures at Eel Marsh House, tells us that Kipps escapes from his predicament with his life (if not all his sanity). This detracts somewhat from the suspense as the reader goes along, and is the payment for the narrator telling us just how terrifying the story is at the beginning. That he’s telling it means he got out. (If you want a first-person narrative which manages to turn this contradiction on its head, then Robert Harris’s The Ghost does this perfectly. That his narrator is telling this tale does not mean he gets out of the soup at all…)

The final reel, as it were, is rather tacked-on at the end as an after-thought, like an attempt to “get one in” at the end for allowing us to know that Kipps escapes from his ordeal. But, as I mentioned earlier, even that poses questions because here the woman in black terrifies a solid horse, yet before, she seemed troubled by a little dog.

That the novel is considered a “classic” of the genre is justified, but even classics are not without their contradictions and problems.

Image result for woman in black

 

 

Sleeping Ugly

I was waiting for Oculus (2013) to become stupid, but it never did. It remained logical right to the end. Before Oculus the creepiest horror movie I’d seen was Sinister (2012) and I watched that about a year ago yet I watch horror movies every week.

(When watching Sinister my daughter, bless her, hid her face behind a cushion several times until I was forced to ask her what on earth she was playing at. Hadn’t she worked out the people were actors, reading lines they had committed to memory, or that they were doing what the director – the unseen person behind the camera – was telling them to do? Yes, thank you, she had worked that out. So I asked her what on earth she was hiding for?)

Oculus gets everything right, and even if it gets things right by accident, I don’t care. By this I mean no laws of physics are broken, everything which happens is physically possible. I mean to say, you can’t have possessed humans crawling along the ceiling because Newton would have to lodge a complaint. Such things are absurd.

Oculus has no such absurdities and the atmosphere comes from the fundamental basis of human fear – the unknown.

The premise is that a young boy is arrested and committed to a mental facility for killing his father. Upon release his sister comes calling to take him back to the house they lived in as kids to confront the evil entity which drove their parents insane. The entity in question is a mirror.

This mirror would be the showpiece in any room, set as it is in an ornate, carved-wood frame. The sight of it is creepy enough; it just hangs there, staring right back at you, reflecting more than your reflection.

Some history is given for this mirror, not for its creation, but its ownership. This starts in London in the late 18th century and the sister has researched forward to the present day. The unknown is present here and begins working on the viewer. Who owned it before the sister’s research began? Where did it come from?

This sort of provenance (or lack of) was used, for instance, in Stephen King’s From a Buick 8 (2002). A strange car is left at a gas-station by a mysterious figure in black, and the reader has no choice but to wonder where it came from. This question is never answered. The unknown works away at our minds from the beginning.

It’s a simple technique. Don’t tell the audience everything and their minds will ask questions and fill in the blanks. If those blanks are about fears, or an object meant to be scary, the unknown allows the human to subconciously choose whatever works for them. If you want to scare someone, get them to choose their own fear, it’ll be more effective than choosing it for them. Ask Winston Smith.

I (to my annoyance) haven’t managed to work out what the connection is to Sleeping Beauty. There’s the mirror (mirror, mirror, on the wall), there’s the (step) mother, who is worried about losing her looks and whose reflection appears older in the mirror and worries her husband is having an affair, and there’s the apples the daughter munches throughout the movie. I mean to say, I’ve never seen a character in a horror movie eat so many apples.

It’s odd that the mega-budget movies can’t seem to get under the skin as well as the cheaper, non-blockbusters do. Do the studios strip the ambiguity from a script because, perhaps, they think audiences want answers to everything and tidy endings? Maybe smaller budgets keep things simple and therefore more effective?

Revival – Stephen King

A tragedy could have you find faith in God because the bereaved want their loved-ones back, so cling to the idea they are still alive in the afterlife, or in heaven, or whatever. That’s probably the reason that religion remains popular. All the justifications and evasions of reason aside, religion allows you to survive death, and who wouldn’t want to survive that? Wondering what might happen to the faith of a minister of the church might have been King’s first thought when the idea for Revival came to him. What might happen to such a man’s faith if his wife and infant son are killed and horribly disfigured in a car crash? King has the human impulse clash somewhat with the party-line of faith – an interesting psychological cocktail – and has Reverend Jacobs deliver what his congregation come to call “The Terrible Sermon,” in which the contradictory positions of faith and reason become too much to cope with and the good Rev. Jacobs lets his flock have both barrels.

Like many of King’s settings, in Maine or not, this book starts in small-town, God-fearing, white-picket-fence America, where the bible-following folks don’t take too kindly to their pastor spitting out conclusions tainted with the poison of reason. Tragedy or not, the guy’s gotta git. The last person Jacobs says goodbye to is the novel’s narrator, Jaime Morton, who begins the novel age 6 and ends it knocking on the door of 60. We follow Morton across the decades as he struggles with his lifestyle choices, and are told of the moment his problems are solved by a chance meeting with Jacobs years after he left town.

Jacobs isn’t quite the same man who left town years ago.

King makes Jacobs a straightforward obsessive. He reminded me (in some ways) of Clyde Shelton, played by Gerard Butler, in Law Abiding Citizen. If you haven’t seen the film, then Shelton could be described as a man with a grudge and an obsession; where Jacobs has a significant obsession, but no grudge against any person, as such, he doesn’t care about humans at all. In addition to his obsession, he’s part Bond villain, part mad scientist, but never really shows any malice: humans are just objects to be used for the data they provide.

To say the ending is bleak would be an understatement. If the things we are shown existing on the other side of the tapestry really are waiting for us, then to say we are born into a losing struggle would be the least of it; but it’s unclear if the things the characters “see” during the book exist in (the novel’s) reality, or are some sort of “projection” the mind of the person involved offers because it is a mind damaged by tragedy. The novel could be a tale about sorrow and loss and how things affects people in their subconscious, with Jacobs’s tinkering just damaging the physical material, allowing the trap door to the subconscious to be thrown open.

Or it might not.